After 3-year journey, Thai Town opens with fireworks

Thai Town
This tiny turquoise trailer was the original home of the new Rapids City, Illinois, restaurant Thai Town Cafe, which will celebrate its grand opening Monday, Aug. 8. CREDIT STEVE TRAINOR

Business is booming in Thai Town.

That’s the name of a new eatery in Rapids City, Illinois, nestled near the Interstate 80 bridge, next door to Port Byron, right across the river from LeClaire, Iowa.

Thai Town
Monthira Kerner cooks the fresh flavorful Thai foods. CREDIT STEVE TRAINOR

At 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 8, the Thai Town Cafe is expected to celebrate its official grand opening with fireworks, music and more at its new 403 17th St., Rapids City location. But the truth is, a growing number of diehard Quad Cities fans already have fallen in love with the Thai cuisine that is now being served up by Monthira Kerner and her husband, Greg Kerner, at the new cafe. 

The couple’s business began as a long distance love story and traveled by food truck to the cafe, which quietly opened for business on Aug. 2. The couple recently shared some of the highlights of their journey with the QCBJ.

A native of Thailand, Monthira met her future husband, Greg, on Facebook.

His hobby was photography and by the time they had begun planning for her to help him tour the country to take photos, “we fell in love,” he said. They had talked or chatted online every day for four months. Mr. Kerner worked the overnight shift at Arconic so the timing worked well. The couple married the very day he showed up in Thailand to meet her in person.

Ms. Kerner initially worked at some factory jobs in the Quad Cities, but Greg said he loved her food so much – “I’m thin because she’s feeding me all this healthy food” – he believed they could do some business-place catering. Ms. Kerner said she thought if she could clear $300 a week, she could cook full time.

In 2018, they first set up their tiny, turquoise food truck at Port Byron’s Tug Fest and made $200 the first night. “We doubled that the second night, and tripled it the third night,” Mr. Kerner said. 

Port Byron’s mayor asked them to come down to the levee twice a week. “It was a flood of people every time we were there,” Mr. Kerner marveled. “Sometimes people waited for an hour for their order.”

They upped their levee time to four days a week but that was too much for Mr. Kerner’s work schedule, so they moved the truck back to their Port Byron home’s driveway. When the COVID-19 shutdown began in 2019 they were able to create a drive-through and take-out window. They also set out picnic tables along with a playground for kids on their five-acre lot. 

“People still wanted to go out to eat but wanted to be away from closed dining rooms,” Monthira  Kerner said. In the end, they needed a place with more parking because the food truck was serving 60 carloads a day. They ended up at the Route 84 and 14th Street corner in Rapids City, using an adjacent building for dining space, but the kitchen was inadequate.

“So we started looking for a building to purchase and this one is an ideal location,” Mr. Kerner said of the 403 17th St. site. “It’s not too busy a street, it’s easy to get to, and there’s plenty of space to expand out front,” he added.

Contractors took it down to the studs. The new dining room will hold 32 people and they have tables and chairs on a front patio. A bigger patio is already planned. While the kitchen appears to be small, Mr. Kerner laughed, saying her cooking space in the truck is only four foot by four foot, whereas the new kitchen is 20 foot by 15 foot.

There are some distinctive things about their operation. 

For example, all the orders are cooked then and there. Mr. Kerner brags that it’s all so fresh because Monthira – she goes by “Chef Aoi” – can make 50 meals an hour. 

Mr. Kerner also stressed that there’s a difference between Thai food and Chinese food. He said “Chinese has about four flavors: sweet and sour, Sichuan, General, and Orange. Thai has some 10 different flavors.”  Thai also is generally hotter and spicier.

But Mr. Kerner added “the biggest difference is that Thai is made fresh every meal because we want the flavor of every ingredient to come out” in every dish.

“We have 80 items on our menu and it grows every six months,” Mr. Kerner added. “Every item can be mixed with another.” This includes seafood items, as well, like scallops, crab, and mussels, along with salmon.

Mr. Kerner said he is amazed by the rapid growth of the business. “It’s taken off like an atomic bomb,” he said. He quit his Arconic job in early 2021.

The Kerners admit they have no time for recreation. Their day starts early seven days a week shopping at Asian grocery stores, Sam’s, and Aldi’s for the fresh ingredients on which the menu relies.

Ms. Kerner did, however, take some time out over about three years to become a U.S. citizen in 2020. She celebrated the second anniversary of that date recently on Thai Town’s Facebook page.

The Kerners are using Facebook to spread the word about the Aug. 8 grand opening. So is the featured band, Rabbit Hole, which will play 70s and beyond rock hits for several hours.

Thai Town Cafe can be found just up from the TBK Bank building on Route 84 in Rapids City. Turn up the 17th Street hill about one city block to whet your appetite.

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